Katniss could feel a new level of migraine picking away at her brow. Gale and the tow-truck driver had finally talked her into the fact that she couldn't fix the truck herself. It would have to go into a mechanic and a mechanic meant a bill. By the time everything had gotten settled it was late and Katniss didn't think she could stand another minute of Gale. She really wanted to hide in her room in the dark and sleep this headache off, but Prim had anticipated her mood. She had set out popcorn and warm blankets on the couch. There was a bright fire crackling in the fireplace and a zombie classic in the DVD player. As much as she wanted to slam her door and be done with this day, she knew she couldn't ignore what Prim had done for her.
She took longer than necessary in the bathroom in an attempt to rescue her flagging spirit. The weight of the bill she anticipated from the mechanic was heavy on her heart. She had been saving for months to get Prim a prom dress worth wearing, but now that was going to the truck. She knew Prim wouldn't care, but thinking about having her sister go to prom in some hand-me-down Hazelle had fixed up made the corners of her eyes sting. She splashed cold water on her face and scrubbed, trying to wash the whole afternoon off.
Prim was sitting quietly on the corner of couch waiting for her when she got out of the bathroom. When Katniss sat, Prim pulled her down and laid Katniss' head in her lap. Katniss was almost embarrassed by the protective gesture but that melted away as her sister played with her hair. This was too comfortable to worry about who was the big sister. The movie started up, but Katniss wasn't paying attention. She was just looking up at Prim, studying her. She had her long blonde hair in a side braid like Katniss, but the girls couldn't be more different. Katniss preferred it that way. Her sister was light where Katniss was dark, all big blue eyes and sweet features. There wasn't a trace of the pain or harshness that was evident in Katniss. Katniss knew Prim had felt the death of their parents as hard, if not harder than Katniss herself had, but Prim almost never showed those scars. She was still so open and easy. As much as Katniss tried to protect Prim from everything, she knew that Prim was the strong one. It was easy to see why everyone fell in love with her.
Katniss finally got up the nerve to ask Prim something she had been thinking about all day. After what Gale said, she couldn't help herself, but she wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer. Prim was never very good at hiding her feelings, but since their mother died, Katniss and Prim had become especially in tune with each other. Katniss knew that if she asked, she would know the answer, regardless of what came out of Prim's mouth.
"You and Peeta seem cozy. Do you really talk that often?" She decided to start easy. Girl talk wasn't her strong suit.
"Yeah, he is a really nice guy. I don't understand why you guys weren't friends in high school. He usually stays after tutoring to make sure I get home. We talk while we wait. I mean he has only been home from college for three weeks, but he has waited with me since he started working with Mrs. Murphey." Prim didn't seem bothered by this line of questioning. She just continued watching the movie flicker in front of her on the television. Of course her sister didn't understand why they weren't friends in high school. Prim was the best of both worlds. She knew the Seam, but looked like a merchant. Katniss didn't think her sister had ever really felt the divide in the town between the rich and the poor. There were few divides big enough to stop Prim's smile.
Katniss remembered someone mentioning that Peeta had come home from college early. She was tempted to ask her why he was back in town at all, but tried to redirect her questioning. "What do you talk about?"
"This and that. He is really good at giving advice. He said he would help me get a prom date. I try to help him with his girl problems, but I don't think I'm much help. I told him about Rory though." Prim looked like she had just turned into cotton candy. Pink from head to toe.
Katniss' mind wandered to what 'girl problems' Prim could possibly help with, but she couldn't resist a chance to needle Prim. "Oh you act like you don't know he is going to ask you already. You know he is Prim." Katniss couldn't help but smile at her sister's blush. This was worth all the worrying and working. To see Prim get a childhood was everything Katniss had ever wanted. "Just don't get too attached. You're leaving soon." The thought of this spitting image of their mother making the same mistake as her own mother had made anxiety catch Katniss' throat. Staying in this godforsaken town for a handsome miner. It would kill Katniss. Or Katniss would kill Rory. She hadn't decided.
"Don't worry, I know. I just want to have a prom date." Prim grinned flush still high on her cheek, but then she started fidgeting with her hands. This was her tell. There was something she wasn't saying. Katniss narrowed her eyes at her little sister, nightmares of her sister telling her she wanted to leave college to stay with Rory climbing around in her imagination. She tried to soften her expression, but couldn't.
"Out with it little duck."
"Well what about you? I mean what about when I'm gone at school? I just don't want you to be up here all alone." Prim furrowed her brow. Concern was so thick on her face, but Katniss couldn't help but be relieved.
"I'll ask Jo to move in. Or Madge. Don't worry. If I end up a hermit, it is because I want to be."
"Don't say that Katniss. Just tell me you will try to make sure you're not alone."
Katniss let out a long sigh. She would. She would always do what Prim asked her to.
It was before dawn when Katniss slipped on her boots. She pressed her toes into the well-worn soles, feeling the relief that came with beginning this small ritual. The steps were always the same, all building towards the hunt. Next came her father's hunting jacket. She pulled it over her shirt, which may have been black long ago, but had since given up trying to be a color. She checked the pockets, making sure her knife was there along with a few other essentials. She knew they would be, but checking made her feel better. Katniss inhaled deeply. There was no way the jacket could still smell like her father after so many years, but when she took a moment to notice it, she thought she could still catch something of the man she missed so much.
She grabbed her bow and a full quiver of arrows from their usual spot beside the back door. Taking a quick look back into the small, dark living room before plunging into the forest. The crisp morning air stung her lungs and cheeks, but she was grateful. It felt like the first real breath she had taken in days. She drank it in. Each breath was like a satisfying stretch after over sleeping, muscles still taunt with inaction but eager to move. Any tension she had felt over the truck breaking down, or from having to spend the money she had saved for Prim's prom dress on fixing it slowly leaked out of her. It mixed into the air and vanished like the hot steam coming from her mouth.
She pushed thoughts away, letting them idle in her mind while she focused on stepping slowly and quietly. She peered around each tree, waiting for the forest to reveal itself to her. Shafts of weak morning light started to filter in. She could even feel her heartbeat slow, as if it didn't want to frighten the serenity of this place by beating too loudly. Its reverence was soon rewarded. She spotted a rabbit out of the corner of her eye. It was only a second before she had the arrow pulled back and trained. It flew easily from her fingertips and hit its mark. She closed her eyes for a moment and was thankful that she could still aim so well. Her ears pricked up as she heard quiet steps behind her. The hair on the back of her neck stood up as she notched an arrow. Thoughts of mountain lions crossed her mind as she spun to face what was following her.
"Jesus Catnip, they make guns for hunting now, you know, right?" Gale grinned at her with the tip of her arrow inches away from his heart. With his smile Katniss could feel the little peace she had built for herself this morning cracking. She couldn't help but feel a tinge of bitterness seep into her face.
She put the arrow back into her quiver before answering him solemnly. "If I used a gun you would be dead."
"If you ever decide to use a gun to hunt, I promise I will stop sneaking up on you." He walked forward and picked up the dead rabbit by the scruff of its neck, pulling out the arrow on the way. "But with a gun you would have to stop hunting these small things. They would be blown to bits."
They turned to start walking back to the Everdeen house. "This is more fun." She said simply, trying in vain to return to her peaceful state. She tried to will Gale away.
"Heaven forbid anything be easy for Katniss Everdeen." Gale chuckled. They walked along in companionable silence for a while. "So what are you going to do once Prim leaves for school in a few months?" Gale's voice sounded tight. Like it took a lot of effort to ask this question.
"I'll miss her, but it isn't like it changes much." Katniss could feel the mountain of worry she was avoiding fall back into her. She was becoming more and more frustrated with Gale's presence.
"Without Prim to take care of, what are you going to do with yourself? You won't have to be a mom anymore. You can move if you want to. Go to college yourself. Date. Do anything."
She stopped to appraise him, but he kept walking, with his gaze steadfastly on the cabin. "I hadn't thought about it like that. I guess just stay here. I mean this house is all I have and I like working for Haymitch. Why? Are you trying to get rid of me Gale Hawthorne?"
"Just checking if I should start looking for a replacement yet." He grinned again, this time Katniss felt like she could join him.
It was true, with Prim safely away at school and well taken care of between loans and scholarships, she could relax a little. Thinking about the sense of peace she had this morning she said, "I think you're safe for a while. I can't imagine leaving this place."
"Good because I would chase you." He looked at her through the corner of his eye only to see her jet off toward the house. Gale laughed and ran after her.
With a quick "Thanks" to Gale, Katniss jumped out of his shiny red F-150. She was a little late for work, not that it mattered. It was 8:15 am and Haymitch was most certainly not at the store yet. Judging by his track record lately, she could expect him to wake up and make an appearance around closing time on his way to the bar for round 2. She opened the door and heard the little bell above ring. Johanna was standing a few feet from the door, body sideways, feet wide, in a fencing stance. Katniss couldn't see what she had in her hand, but she knew Johanna was throwing knives again. Johanna didn't acknowledge that someone had come in, she just squinted toward the dartboard at the end of the narrow room. Her tongue caught between her teeth in concentration. Katniss waited patiently in the doorway for Jo to release the knife, trying not to ruin her shot. Once it found its way to the center of the bulls-eye, Katniss threw her leather bag over the long glass case that ran across the right side of the room and hopped cleanly over it.
"Someday you're going to miss and break that case and I will die laughing." Jo said while lining up again to throw another knife. "Then I will come back to life just to laugh some more." Katniss couldn't help but give a soft barking laugh, more at how Jo looked than at her comment. The way she was standing made her look like Peter Pan, dagger in hand. Her ruffled short brown hair stood out on end like she had just rolled out of bed. Her green Abernathy Gun and Ammo shirt tight across her boyish chest and her slight build made her look even more like the preteen hero. Her tight jeans were about the only thing that betrayed Jo's gender.
"Yeah, but you'll get over it once you realize you have to help pick glass out of my ass."
"Mmm, not the situation I had hoped to see your ass in but I'll take it." She winked before throwing another little knife right at the bulls-eye. Katniss rolled her eyes and shrugged on an over-sized sweatshirt. "Don't get too comfortable Kat, you have a private class at ten. Some little princess needs help learning how to shoot a handgun daddy bought her. Bitch is named Glimmer. Can you believe that?"
"Ugh, I can. She was in my graduating class. Can't you take it?"
"Nope, she asked for you. Maybe it's your charming personality." Katniss grabbed a couple more throwing knives from the gun case before hopping back over to join Johanna. She pushed up her sleeves and got into her own throwing stance. They had put the bell on the door themselves to allow for this target practice. The room was a long narrow thing with just enough room for the gun case and not much else. The shooting range was on the other side of the wall and that was the real attraction. After four years of full-time work, Katniss and Jo were getting pretty good at throwing knives, shooting guns, and taking out their frustrations on targets.
"God, a tiny lesbian and some hillbilly forest girl throwing knives for fun. Katniss Everdeen, we are unloveable." Jo didn't really believe that for a second, but she said it almost every time they started this game. This time Katniss didn't laugh.
"You are the second one to say that to me in twenty-four hours. Prim told me she is scared I am going to wind up some shut in after she goes to school." Thwack, a knife hit the dead center, cutting through the target and into the wall. She didn't flinch. The walls were thick redwood and filled with little scratches and cuts from their less successful attempts at learning to throw knives. Jo had buried a hatchet so deep into the wall next to the target that Haymitch just let them leave it there. He hung a sign that said 'Stealing is not advised' next to it.
"Well aren't you?" Jo asked easily, walking up to pull the knives out of the dart board. She pulled hard on the one stuck in the middle and had to wiggle it to coax it out of the wall. "Jesus Katniss, getting a little dramatic, are we?"
"I am not a shut in. I have Gale don't I? And you? And Madge and Finnick? Don't they count?"
"I don't think friends are what Prim was talking about. I think Prim is just worried her sister is actually the frigid bitch she pretends to be. Nuns get more action than you do." Jo handed all the knives to Katniss and leaned against the case. Clearly Katniss had some shit to work through.
"Sorry for being a responsible guardian." She missed the target by a mile this time, her cheeks getting pink with anger.
"You don't have to tell me. I know, but now that Prim is almost gone you can start sleeping around like the little slut I know you are."
"Not what I was planning on." Katniss took a deep breath before launching the next knife, trying to focus.
"Yeah, whatever, I'm not judging. Why don't you just sleep with Gale and get it over with?" A knife hit flat against the wall and fell down with a clatter onto the hardwood floor. "Oh don't look at me like that. You know he wants a little of that fucked up girl flavor, and Gale has already dealt with your bullshit and knows you're really just a marshmallow under that hard candy shell." Katniss didn't know what her face looked like, but she knew it couldn't possibly be conveying enough of the disgust she felt for this idea. "You can't tell me you haven't thought about running to his cabin and asking him to keep you warm on one of those cold winter nights. Hell, I've thought about it and I don't even play for his team."
If Katniss was being honest, she had thought about it. The fact that he was handsome was undeniable, but more importantly, he was her best friend. He was loyal. He understood her temper. He didn't question her devotion to Prim. But for everything she didn't know about having a boyfriend, she did know there was supposed to be more than what they had.
"Yeah, that's not going to happen."
"You just need to fuck him, you don't need to marry him. Blah blah blah, ruining your relationship, whatever. You get some friends with benefits action, if it works out, great, if it doesn't, he finds someone else and so do you."
Katniss didn't reply. She just continued throwing knives, intensely focused on the target. Johanna almost felt sorry for the wood beneath.
"Whatever, forget I said anything. Let's lock up for a minute and go get some coffee and bagels across the street."
That was about the only thing Jo could have said to get Katniss out of her fixation on the cork board. She opened her mouth, but realized she didn't know what to tell Jo. Katniss shifted uneasily. She was more worried about seeing Peeta at the bakery than leaving the shop unattended. She still hadn't figured out how she felt about his volunteering to pick up Prim. "Do you really think that's a good idea?" She finally got out.
"No one is coming in this early and what is Haymitch gonna do? Fire me and send me back to momsie and popsicle?" That was the only way Johanna ever referred to her parents. She pretended like she didn't care that they had kicked her out after catching her in bed with the preacher's daughter her senior year of high school. Katniss knew better. She had met Johanna the day she found her way to her Uncle Haymitch's store, looking for a place to stay. "Haymitch, the patron saint of broken girls, would not begrudge us some breakfast. Come on, I'm buying."